Stephen's Story: Making Connections in a Rural Island Community

November 3rd, 2014


Two old friends enjoy each other?s company. Stephen and Marsha (the kitty) go back a long way.

When the bell on the door tinkles, announcing the arrival of a visitor to the Whidbey Animals? Improvement Foundation (WAIF) animal shelter in Freeland, cats hop down from their perches and rise from their beds to see who has come to give them attention. One cat in particular, a black female called Marsha, meows at the sight of an old friend, Stephen. Stephen?s love for animals led him to make weekly visits to the animal shelter in Coupeville, where he first met Marsha. When traveling to Coupeville became problematic and a new shelter opened in Freeland, much closer to home, it seemed a natural destination for Stephen. What a surprise to discover Marsha had been transferred to the new shelter!

?She is always so happy to see him,? says Judy Dewing, a caretaker at the WAIF shelter, as Stephen approaches his feline friend to give her a scratch behind the ears.

The good feelings are mutual. ?I?m like her friend,? reports Stephen. ?I like coming here so I can pet her and hug her.?

Visiting the WAIF shelter is only one of the numerous connections Stephen has made in his community. His interest in animals has also led to an ongoing role as ?baby goat feeder? at the Little Brown Farm. Every day at 3:00, the twenty-odd baby goats at the farm need bottle feeding and, when his schedule permits, Stephen is there to help out. 

On his first visit to the farm Stephen arrived ready to feed the baby goats, but he was told that the feeding would have to wait because one of the momma goats was in labor. Half an hour later, Stephen was holding a brand new baby goat in his arms!  As Vicky Brown, owner of the farm, reminded him, rarely do visitors get to witness a labor and delivery on the farm. The smile on Stephen?s face as he held the newborn goat attested to the fact that this connection will last a lifetime.

The positive experience with the Little Brown Farm goats led to another recent outing, this time to visit a pair of milking goats owned by Laurie Keith. Once again, the animals took to Stephen like an old trusted friend, and he, in turn, gave them loving attention. ?Goats are about community and bringing people together in a joyful way,? says Laurie. While this visit has not yet resulted in an ongoing role for Stephen, the opportunity is there for future involvement. As Laurie says, ?Stephen is always welcome to spend time with them.?

Stephen also volunteers at a local soup kitchen, where, in exchange for a bowl of hot soup and a dessert, he wipes down the tables after the lunchtime crowd has left.

Since transitioning home in July 2013, Stephen has been on a quest to find niches in the local community. His involvement with his Community Connectors began with his two ?assistants? (a term Stephen finds appealing and comical when voiced with a French accent) brainstorming with him to generate a list of interests. 

The idea of Community Connectors started in the late 1980?s, when John O?Brien, John McKnight and many other like-minded people realized that people with developmental disabilities were living in various communities, but often were still separated or isolated from the heart of community life. Assisting people to truly belong and contribute in ways that they chose became seen as an essential part of helping people with disabilities have a rich, full life. Thus, the idea of a Community Connector was created. In Stephen?s case, Roads to Community Living supported him in establishing his Community Connectors on Whidbey Island.

Using Stephen?s list, his assistants, Joni and Mark, made arrangements with local area residents for Stephen to visit their businesses or organizations. An interest in singing, for example, led to Stephen sitting in (and singing with!) the Open Circle Singers, a group of local residents who gather weekly at the local high school. A desire to learn more about mythology resulted in a couple of chats with Jim Riley, a retired Latin and Greek scholar, who proved to be an expert and passionate resource on Greek mythology.

?I like learning about Hades and other Greek Gods,? reports Stephen. Asked to share some of his newfound knowledge, he replies, ?I learned that Hera is the Goddess of marriage!?

?I enjoy Stephen when he smiles or tells us what he?s excited about,? adds Jim. ?He?s a good learner!?

Of his many interests, Stephen has a particular curiosity and passion for languages. Last spring, he indulged this passion by attending a ?foreign language chat? at the Northwest Language Academy, where he listened to three members conversing in Russian and also sang along with some traditional Russian folk songs.

Stephen?s interest in language also extends to coining new words. One such word, ?jedifiable,? an adverb, describes any activity that promotes longevity. The teachings of Yoda, from the Star Wars films, inspired Stephen to coin the term, which finds its way into many of Stephen?s daily activities, whether it be exercising, eating healthy meals, or having an exhilarating experience. It?s a great word to incorporate into your own conversations, and Stephen would love it if jedifiable became widely used!

At the end of each weekly outing Stephen and his two assistants visit one of the numerous local coffee shops, where Stephen can enjoy his favorite latte and a snack while discussing the day?s activity and making plans for future adventures.

Early in their time together it became apparent that Stephen is most comfortable participating in short-duration activities, and so his assistants tailored their efforts toward connections that would match his preferences and tolerance. Although each idea for an outing is meant to provide Stephen an opportunity to make an immediate connection in his local community, even if one does not instantly develop, the groundwork has been laid for Stephen to make a future connection if and when he chooses to pursue one. His assistants view each attempt at making a connection as a spoke in the wheel of Stephen?s life. The more spokes, the stronger the wheel.

Facing challenges and overcoming barriers has also been a focus for Stephen since beginning his involvement with his Community Connectors. Difficulties with spatial awareness can make negotiating stairs and curbs a challenge, but with the help of his two assistants Stephen has met the challenge with increasing success. He regularly travels on foot between various activities, providing many opportunities to practice maneuvering sidewalks and crosswalks, along with ascending and descending stairs. His greatest achievement involves a long (60 stairs!) stairway down to the waterfront in Langley, which Stephen has mastered now on several occasions.

When not traveling on foot, Stephen has become comfortable riding local transit into either Freeland or Langley. Bus drivers know him, and on one occasion a fellow passenger who had met Stephen while working at the soup kitchen ?chatted him up? during a ride into Freeland. Just being present in his community has proven socially rewarding for Stephen. While on outings he has also encountered and reconnected with several other community members, including an old family friend who wished him well on his birthday, a teacher he knew in high school, and a former caretaker who checked in with Stephen while both were creating art at the Paint Escape. Each interaction brings a smile to Stephen?s face, and further enhances his sense of place and belonging within the community.

Stephen?s parents, Sandra and Dan, have witnessed Stephen?s blossoming in the local community. ?Having Community Connectors offered Stephen chances to form a base of positive routine experiences in the community. This, in turn, gave him confidence,? says Sandra. ?Now we have a base that we can continue to add to.?

One of the primary reasons Stephen has enjoyed so many opportunities for connection is because of the people who live in his community. Initially there was a concern that a rural area might not provide an ideal setting for ?connecting.?  Newcomers to our small island community, however, are surprised by the range of offerings available despite the small population. Many folks who have settled here want to share their backgrounds and gifts with others, which has led to a diverse arts community as well as model environmental and social programs. Local area residents have consistently welcomed Stephen into their activities, providing assistance, encouragement, and friendship.

Sandra echoes this notion when she says, ?South Whidbey Island is a small community, and due to the program many members of our community know Stephen a bit better, and he them.?

As we enter the final weeks of Stephen?s involvement with his Community Connectors, there are still more adventures yet to pursue. In addition to his ongoing quest to find jedifiable experiences, Stephen wants to meet people from different cultures, as well as continue his interest in foreign languages. While one of his long-term goals is to travel to Greece and other European countries, for now his island community can provide a touchstone to his varied interests, and his involvement broadens and enhances the whole of our community.

October 2014 Newsletter

November 3rd, 2014

When the bell on the door tinkles, announcing the arrival of a visitor to the Whidbey Animals? Improvement Foundation (WAIF) animal shelter in Freeland, cats hop down from their perches and rise from their beds to see who has come to give them attention. One cat in particular, a black female called Marsha, meows at the sight of an old friend, Stephen.


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August 12th, 2014

Hi all,

I apologize for not updating the blog much over the summer.  We were working on big stories, and the time simply got away from us!  Please take some time to read about all our Make a Difference workshop learning partners and their stories.  Also, please check out their photo galleries.  It took a couple of trys to get the pictures posted correctly, but they all look great now.

Thank you for your patience, and enjoy the rest of your summer!